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Writer on the Storm

George R. Stewart’s ecofictions forecasted today’s calamities
Art for Writer on the Storm.


Storm by George R. Stewart. New York Review Books Classics, 304 pages.

Before World War II, storms were not usually named. At least in the United States, hurricanes and other tropical disturbances were identified instead by their latitudes and longitudes, a cumbersome system that made it hard to distinguish multiple storms occurring at the same time. In these early days “confusion and false rumors [would arise] when storm advisories . . . were mistaken for warnings concerning an entirely different storm located hundreds of miles away,” according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

Even though English meteorologist Clement Lindley Wragge established a naming system while working in Australia in the late nineteenth century, by the 1930s most storms on both sides of the Atlantic were still identified by the old system. This started to change only during the War when meteorologists in the U.S. Navy and Air Force began naming typhoons in the Western Pacific after their wives or girlfriends. Finding the system effective, the NHC began adopting the policy in the 1950s, first using the international phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie . . .) to identify storms, and then, after 1953, women’s names, with the practice soon spreading internationally. (Following accusations of sexism, men’s names were added to the lists beginning in 1978.)

These military meteorologists had the examples of Wragge and other pioneering weather professionals to draw on, but they also had a source nearer at hand. In 1941, George R. Stewart—Professor of English at University of California, Berkeley, then best known for his arresting, human-scale history of the Donner Party, Ordeal by Hunger—brought out a new novel called Storm. Organized around the lifespan of a storm that develops off the coast of Japan, eventually inundating California with both heavy rains and snow before moving eastward and gradually dying out, the book’s very structure is anti-anthropocentric. Unfolding over twelve chapters, each corresponding to a different day, the novel proceeds mosaic-like, providing glimpses of the characters charged with managing the storm while keeping the tempest itself very much in the foreground.

In its portrayal of the interrelatedness of weather systems across the world, it brought a fresh ecocentric orientation to the novel.

Among the most prominent of the book’s characters is an ambitious young weatherman, known only as the Junior Meteorologist. The J.M., who works at the San Francisco Weather bureau, has secretly been naming the storms he sees on his daily charts, a practice about which he feels some measure of embarrassment. Despite his rationalist mathematician’s background, he can’t help but take a paternal interest in the various disturbances he encounters and comes to view them as almost sentient beings. He bestows the name Maria on the book’s central storm, and when he accidentally lets this fact slip to his boss, the Chief reveals that he too has a habit of naming storms. The two are suddenly bonded, brothers in nomenclature.

When Storm was first published, it was taken by many readers and critics to be something new in the world of literature. Stewart’s biographer Donald M. Scott called it the first “ecological novel,” noting its reversing of the relative importance of human beings and the planet. In its portrayal of the interrelatedness of weather systems across the world, it brought a fresh ecocentric orientation to the novel. It also proved instantly popular, particularly with newly enlisting American military personnel. Appearing in both a Book-of-the-Month Club and an abridged Boy Scouts edition, the novel would go on to sell over a million copies, according to Stewart. It came as well to exert a decisive influence on U.S. military meteorologists, who took the J.M.’s “sentimental vagary” as a workable model for designating storms. Today, it is widely credited with influencing the naming system developed by the National Hurricane Center, which is now maintained by the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations.

Thus, one of George R. Stewart’s lasting legacies came to be a system of naming. From 1930 to 1979, Stewart would publish some thirty books, encompassing history, anthropology, and fiction. Despite these books’ wide range, they feature several connecting characteristics. First is a deep interest in both the physical landscape of the American West and its people. Born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, in 1895, Stewart moved to California when he was twelve and, after a few displacements, ultimately settled in the Bay Area for good in 1923. A devoted naturalist, Stewart spent considerable time wandering the diverse landscapes of the state, using his observations to endow his books with vivid descriptions of the natural surroundings which tend to be both as significant as the humans who wander them and, often, determinate of their destinies.

A man who, in his own words, was “possessed by the fascination of names,” Stewart would devote four books to the practice of denomination and go on to become a founding member of the American Name Society. The most significant of these books is the 1945 study, Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, a far-ranging account of the way the country’s states, towns, rivers, lakes, and other geographical features got their names, told as a series of winsome anecdotes. For Stewart, the variety and sweep of U.S. place names echo the democratic spirit and diversity of the nation, producing a sort of folk poetry that he takes a special delight in enumerating. In almost all his books, Stewart indulges at least once in a litany of place names for the sheer pleasure of the sounds.

Stewart, who was “possessed by the fascination of names,” would devote four books to the practice of denomination and go on to become a founding member of the American Name Society.

Storm, though, finds Stewart taking a more skeptical view of naming—at least as it applies to the assigning of human monikers to turbulent weather. Considering the use of the military term “front” to describe a storms’ boundaries in one of the novel’s many essayistic asides, Stewart reflects on how the term became popularized in the wake of World War I, “a time when such military expressions were on everyone’s tongue.” (Storm was, of course, written during World War II, a conflict that would have been heavily on Stewart’s mind at the time.) After considering the possibility that, were the existence of fronts to have been discovered in more peaceful times, they might have been given a name taken from amorous pursuits rather than war, he ultimately rejects the propriety of both possibilities. “Best of all,” he writes, “would be to use words unrelated to human feelings. Those great storms know neither love nor hate.”

And yet, throughout the book, Stewart himself anthropomorphizes the storm. (He also makes frequent use of the sort of military metaphors he here decries.) Largely filtered through the point of view of the Junior Meteorologist, Stewart continually describes Maria as a living, breathing being who undergoes the full course of a human life cycle. In an aside he makes the comparison explicit: “Like a person,” he writes, “a storm is a focus of activities, continuing and varying through a longer or shorter period of time, having a birth, youth, maturity, old age, and death.” This antithesis between humankind’s attempts to corral nature, here expressed via the simple process of naming, and our ultimate, if not total, impotence stands as the defining tension not only of Storm but of all of Stewart’s work.

In 1946, following the publication of Names on the Land, Stewart brought out a very strange little book. Titled Man: An Autobiography, it’s meant to be taken literally: over a mere 250 pages, the book presents a first-person account of humankind’s entire development from its pre-history as apes through the present day, all told by a representative figure known as “Man.” Taking as its guiding principle the narrator’s criticism of other anthropological histories—“You cannot see Man because of men”—the narrator aims not for individualized narrative but something approximating the universal. His story follows the dominant trends in humankind’s development, focusing on vanguard civilizations at the expense of laggards, charting only those breakthroughs that he deems most important for the development of modern civilization.

The book’s conceit inevitably leads to more than its share of hokiness—its opening, “I Man, having attained some maturity of years, feel a desire to write my autobiography,” sets the tone—but as an abbreviated history of humankind it’s instructive. As a guide to Stewart’s views on human society, it’s even more so. Reveling in his idiosyncratic reading of history, the narrator downgrades certain periods of history (the Roman Empire gets short shrift), while elevating specific inventions to the status of world-altering (the domestication of sheep). Above all, Stewart expresses an ambivalence about the entire project of civilization; if the development of larger societies has often led to the majority of the population being enslaved or living as serfs, he reasons, then the concept of progress is immediately suspect. Rather than using the term “progress,” then, the narrator tells us early on, he prefers to speak of “change.” Only in considering contemporary American society, with the supposed triumph of democracy via the New Deal, is he willing to admit the striking of a proper balance between advancement and freedom.

In Earth Abides, a geographer emerges from a self-imposed isolation to discover that a virus has killed most of humanity, leaving him and only a few others remaining.

Reflecting back at the end of the Autobiography, the narrator offers up a tentative theory of history. Humankind, he explains, “produce[s] history by making adjustments within a set framework.” This framework is double. The first part is, of course, the environment, the immutable natural laws that govern humanity; second, and perhaps less obvious, is the progress and knowledge passed down by prior civilizations. Within these strictures, humans are able to alter the course of their history, but only by so much. “So far,” Man concludes, “I have not been able to change fundamentally either part of the framework.”

It’s this ambivalent view of civilization, along with its limited view of human agency, that animates the series of disaster novels for which Stewart is best known. Following the success of Storm, Stewart returned to the genre later in the decade, producing a run of ecofiction that charts humanity’s response to different moments of acute environmental crisis. While Fire, published in 1948, was intended as a direct follow-up to Storm, retaining its general structure while replacing Maria with a California wildfire, Stewart’s subsequent books, like 1949’s Earth Abides and 1951’s Sheep Rock, pushed beyond the basic template.

Earth Abides, in particular, finds Stewart testing out his larger attitudes toward civilization. Stewart’s most popular novel, the book opens with graduate student and geographer Ish Williams emerging from a self-imposed isolation to discover that a virus has killed most of humanity, leaving him and only a few others remaining. Eventually he finds a wife and, with a group of other survivors, sets up a makeshift community in the Bay Area neighborhood where he grew up. Ish, the intellectual, is continually frustrated by the lack of ambition of his fellow citizens. Having established a basic, functional society, they are content to live lazily, without a thought of building any kind of larger civilization, save for by the simple act of reproduction. Only when a crisis comes to the community (a sudden drying up of the water supply, the introduction of a suspicious outsider), does anyone take any action.

Stewart’s typical skepticism about human civilization is expressed throughout, both in the italicized interludes in which the author calls on Old Testament cadences to offer a wider perspective on the action, and in Ish’s own musings. These musings are at least somewhat optimistic early on, but after the book’s central moment of crisis, they become far more resigned. Halfway through the novel, the leaders of the society decide by unanimous vote to execute a potentially dangerous outsider who threatens the purity of the community. Ish, who himself guiltily casts his ballot for death, reflects afterwards on the irony of this foundational act of state building: “The State—it should be a kind of nourishing mother, protecting the individuals in their weakness . . . And now the first act of the State, its originating function, had been to bring death.”

After this central action, Ish largely abandons his plans to advance the cause of society, and simply grows old. The narrative jumps forward twenty years over the course of a brief interlude, and we suddenly see Ish preparing for death. He looks on the younger generation with bemusement, not having any idea what course civilization will take from here on out—or indeed what course it should take. Musing on his earlier ambitions for rebuilding society, he is now not sure that such an outcome would even be desirable: “He suddenly thought of all that had gone to build civilization—of slavery and conquest and war and oppression.” In the end, the only thing he can affirm is the endurance of the planet, which will continue to spin long after the last human has died out.

That moment of fatalism has not yet come in Storm and Fire. Storm alternates descriptions of Maria with short philosophical essays, glimpses of the natural world, and views of the civil servants who try to limit the impact of the ecological disaster they can’t control. These sections are scrupulously arranged so as to drive home specific causal points. A brief description of an owl electrocuting itself on a power line is picked up again only dozens of pages later to illustrate the event’s disastrous rippling consequences on the power grid. A two-by-four that falls of a truck bed later causes a traffic fatality. The fall of a rotten bole in California has life-changing consequences for people as far afield as Reno, Boise, and Omaha. Everything, both manmade and natural, is connected in Storm’s ecosystem; everything that happens has wide-ranging consequences, the butterfly effect in full force.

Against such cosmic determinism, what chance does humankind have? The dedicated civil servants of Storm, identified, for the most part, only by their title, simply carry on. The Junior Meteorologist can only predict the weather; he has no power to change it, but he performs his task with professional exactitude. Stewart provides these nameless men and women with quick sketch personalities but defines them as much by their job function as their individual characteristics. Intensely dedicated to the study of process, the result of immersive research on his part, Stewart lovingly recounts the intricate details by which these people go about attempting to limit the damage of the storm. In genuinely suspenseful set pieces involving such dangerous situations as a flooded underpass and a snowed-over road, Stewart shows these people at their best, dutifully playing their part in the systems that humankind has developed over its many years of existence to prevent the unnecessary death and destruction that it has also, inadvertently, helped cause.

In Fire, the focus shifts even further toward process, with the mosaic structure much more lightly employed, the action less diffuse, and the firefighting set-pieces comprising virtually the entirety of the second half of the novel. Humankind’s agency is given a small boost as well, a change signaled by Stewart’s decision to give most of his characters proper names. (Storm’s J.M., who returns here, is revealed to go by Dave Halliday.) Unlike with Maria, which simply exhausts itself, the Spitcat Fire is finally contained by the men, even if it’s only fully extinguished by a subsequent rainfall. The casualties are numerous by the time the Spitcat is finally snuffed out, and the results are ongoing and irreversible, but humanity, at this point in its development, has contrived just enough resources to be able to assert that minimal dominion over nature. The following year, in Earth Abides, Stewart would conjure up something more destructive. Our civilization may be able to (barely) contain a wildfire, but as we know too well, its best efforts are no match for a killer plague.

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